36.Early development of science communication efforts were based on a ‘knowledge deficit model’; the idea that public scepticism towards science was due to a lack of knowledge or understanding, and that this could be rectified by spreading more and better information. Many criticised that deficit model because it ignored individuals’ specific characteristics and cultural contexts that influence their understanding of science. Researchers have since developed a contextual framework theory for how scientific messages are absorbed in a way that is influenced by people’s attitudes and social environment. In short, science communicators must understand their specific audience to be effective in engaging them.
37.The University of Oxford emphasised that “publics constituted by shared concerns”, such as patients with a particular disease or communities affected by particular environmental risks, were “knowledgeable publics whose first-hand understandings, evidence and experiences have a valuable contribution to make to informing and improving the quality of research as well as its policy and societal impact.
38.Professor James Wilsdon from the University of Sheffield believed that there had been great progress in recent decades on how people were engaged in science:
We have come from an era 25 years ago when we talked in somewhat patronising terms about public understanding of science, through a shift towards dialogue with the public, to more of a two-way conversation that was [ … ] the result of the difficulties that were experienced around BSE, GM crops and so on. We now have an incredible, diverse, largely bottom-up environment in which science communication and engagement takes place on social media, in pubs and on YouTube, as well as in the formal media.
We have reached a point where the diversity, volume and intensity of conversations between researchers and the public [ … ] is one of the standout strengths of UK science.
39.Research by the Wellcome Trust reported “positive and encouraging signals” of an increase in the “extent, support and quality of public engagement by researchers over the past decade” with a majority of researchers considering public engagement to be as important as other aspects of their job. The Wellcome Trust also noted, however, that pressure on researchers’ time and a lack of formal structures to reward public engagement as barriers to undertaking this work.
40.The Royal Society highlighted that the Ipsos MORI surveys of public attitudes to science had showed that:
There is a suggestion that people feel less able to engage with the process—there is an increase in the number of people who feel that they have no option but to trust those governing science (from 60% in 1988 to 67% in 2014).
At the same time, the surveys found “an overwhelming desire for regulators, government and scientists to engage in dialogue with the public: seven-in-ten (69%) think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.”
41.Effective science communication between researchers and the public is important. But so too is engagement between Government and a public which ultimately pays for much of our institutional research and which is affected by policy-making founded on that research.
42.Government has a pivotal role in making that communication happen. As Research Councils UK put it:
The Government has a key leadership role in setting high-level strategy and championing the importance of effective public engagement and high quality science communication—ensuring it understands the research system, the importance of the independence of researchers and the basis of public trust in this.
43.Following the Government’s 2004 Science and Innovation Investment Framework, it founded Sciencewise programme to fund public dialogue projects to investigate public attitudes relevant to particular policy decisions. After the Council for Science and Technology (CST) recommended in 2005 that public dialogue should form a routine part of policy decisions involving science and technology, the Government established and funded Sciencewise as a permanent expert ‘national centre for public dialogue’ to “support policy makers to commission and use excellent public dialogue as an integral part of policy-making”. It has since managed dialogue projects, commissioned by government departments or agencies, on synthetic biology, shale gas and oil, mitochondrial replacement, stratified medicine and geo-engineering.
44.Sciencewise has identified key characteristics of good ‘public dialogue’, including engaging with the public “at a stage in a decision-making process where the policy can be affected”, and described ‘public dialogue’ approaches including ‘Citizen juries’, ‘Citizen summits’ and ‘Citizen advisory groups’. Sir Roland Jackson, chair of Sciencewise, said that it had “increased recognition among science policy-makers that members of the public can have useful insights that the experts may not have thought about. Dialogue provides a valuable reality-check on what’s at stake in a given policy.” An evaluation of the organisation in 2015 by one of its partner bodies concluded that half of its dialogues had “influenced the development of new decision-making processes, most commonly through the recognition of how public dialogue or public engagement can help remove policy barriers”, and that 35% of its dialogues “appeared to have directly fed into policy decisions”.
45.Sciencewise was a central plank of one of four key areas (‘Making informed science policy decisions’) in the Government’s 2012 policy on the Public understanding of science and engineering. Our predecessor Committee expressed its support for Sciencewise in 2015 and for its continued funding. The Government did not at that time commit to permanent funding of Sciencewise because spending programmes were to be reconsidered in subsequent Spending Reviews. In our current inquiry, with Sciencewise’s current budget coming to an end in March 2016, Jo Johnson told us in November 2016:
It was brought back in-house in 2016. There is an intention to re-let the contract shortly, so that they can continue the good work, but for the time being, it has been undertaken in-house in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
46.Despite Government initiatives such as Sciencewise and establishing the National Centre for Public Engagement (paragraph 43), witnesses had concerns about restrictions on government scientists’ communications. The Science Media Centre complained that:
Scientists who work at research institutes or agencies owned by government departments are not always free to share their expertise with the media and are subject to restrictions. These scientists are publicly funded and work on subjects of public interest, including vaccines, bees and pesticides, badgers and TB, tree diseases, e-cigarettes, Ebola, GM, etc. They do undertake media work, but only with the express permission from the government press office and under very tight controls.
47.Professor Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, did not share such concerns:
Government scientists [ … ] are subject to the Civil Service Code and it is very important that we have the trust of the policy makers we work with. You need to look at this through three different lenses. First, many Government scientists are engaged in [ … ] routine, usually quite applied research, and they publish their research in the normal way. It is quite uncontentious and they communicate with the public the results of their research. There is a second category of work where Government scientists are communicating and involved in policy decisions and policy advice. In that context, they are covered by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act that allow for a safe space in relation to policy discussions and advice to Government. That work would typically not be published and would not take the form of academic publications anyway. [ … ] Then there is the third area, which is in the heat of an emergency. There I think the risk is that one does not want too much of a running commentary from all sorts of different voices. We are very clear that in the context of SAGE - the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies - when we have external experts we encourage them to communicate, but not to use confidential information that they have acquired during the context of the national emergency. [ … ] You want people to be able to communicate but not to be managing an emergency through a megaphone.
48.We have previously examined the role of science advice in emergencies, including how government communicates information on the science to the public in our 2016 report, Science in Emergencies: UK lessons from Ebola. We are currently examining science advice in chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incidents or emergencies in a separate ongoing inquiry.
49.The public funding system for research has changed in recent years to encourage researchers to undertake public engagement. Public engagement is included in the ‘impact’ assessment of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which decides the block grant element of universities’ research funding. We have previously highlighted the strength of the ‘dual support’ research funding system, of which such grants are a part, and the need to preserve this system once UK Research & Innovation is set up. A consultation on the REF in 2014 found that the ‘impact’ factor “has created more demand and interest from academics to help and support to develop good public engagement, many of whom were previously unaware or uninterested”, but also that “it has encouraged an instrumental attitude from some—doing public engagement for ‘selfish’ reasons rather than to achieve genuine mutual benefit”.
50.Lord Stern’s recent 2016 review on the REF system recommended a wider definition of ‘impact’ in the assessments, but also that they include a closer association with policy-making:
Guidance on the REF should make it clear that ‘impact’ case studies should not be narrowly interpreted, need not solely focus on socio-economic impacts but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching.
51.Dr Simon Singh and Professor Richard Wiseman thought it “naive to think that the majority of scientists have the skillset or motivation to be great communicators: Science communication is hard, and it requires scientists who will take it seriously by dedicating time and effort over a sustained period.” AsSIST-UK, Science in Public and Public Communication of Science and Technology, on the other hand, wanted science communication and public engagement embedded in the new research structures more generally:
The REF’s focus on impact has given a boost to this agenda, but a broader set of impact definitions would help more engagement activities ‘count’, when they sometimes struggle to demonstrate REF-able transformations to policy to practice.
The Royal Society told us similarly that:
A key principle of the UK’s research landscape should be openness which engenders public trust, increases transparency and supports the widest possible dissemination and honest discussion of research outputs. The future REF should have consideration for the culture it can create.
52.The Government has the primary responsibility for fostering and facilitating science engagement in its policy-making. It should maintain and strengthen national programmes such as Sciencewise and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Their programmes should be routinely used across all government departments, so that public opinion is fully captured in developing government policy where science is involved.
53.We agree with the Stern review’s recommendation that the Research Excellence Framework encompasses a definition of ‘impact’ in the system’s assessments that includes a closer association with policy-making.
54.The 2014 Public Attitudes to Science survey highlighted a need for regulators, government and scientists to engage in dialogue with the public: “75% of respondents thought that the Government should act in line with public concerns about science with 88% expressing views that regulators need to communicate more with the public”.
55.Government departments regularly undertake public consultation on specific policies, distinct from public dialogue, by engaging people typically in the later stages of policy-making. The Cabinet Office’s Consultation Principles were updated in 2016, allowing departments to use a range of consultation timescales rather than a previous default of 12 weeks, particularly where extensive engagement has occurred before. The Royal Academy of Engineering was concerned that:
Short consultation periods, of as little as four weeks, are now more common than previously and can seriously affect the range and quality of responses [ … ] Longer consultation periods of up to 12 weeks, as previous standard practice, allow for more effective expert responses to be sought and compiled.
There is increasing concern [ … ] that Government, where it consults, appears to do so reactively [ … ] rather than proactively [ … ] Consultation also appears to focus on areas where there may have been less significant public interest and less contention.
56.Consultations are widely seen as an important tool to understand the views of relevant stakeholders and an effective means of providing evidence which influences policy making. Some of our witnesses complained that consultation respondents were often drawn from a small pool of organisations with a particular interest in the area rather than from people likely to be affected by the policy—overlooking what the University of Oxford called “publics constituted by shared concerns” (paragraph 37).
57.Professor Robert Evans from Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study on Knowledge, Expertise and Science provided some interesting insights in how policy-making consultation might be improved, by reflecting research on the ‘Expertise and experience’ approach to public engagement. This required an acknowledgement that ‘expertise’ came from those closely involved in the scientific research of the field in question but also from those experiencing the consequences of that area. He explained that:
Meaningful public participation in technological decision-making requires that the questions put to citizens match their ability to answer them. [ … ] The ‘political’ elements of technological decision-making must be kept separate from the ‘technical’ elements. In this context, the ‘technical’ element concerns establishing what the relevant expert community believes is known with certainty (e.g. it is now highly likely that human activity is causing climate change) whilst the ‘political’ element concerns how to act as a result of this knowledge (e.g. what is the appropriate balance between adaptation and mitigation). [ … ] Although political decisions should be informed by the best available expert advice, [ … ] policy-makers must retain the right to discount expert advice and choose a different alternative.
From this, Professor Evans drew some recommendations for Government engagement and policy-making:
Government bodies should distinguish carefully between processes that seek to gain expert advice, encourage public engagement and measure popular opinion. All three are perfectly legitimate objectives but require different methods and serve different purposes. [ … ] Where expert advice is needed then it is important to distinguish between the ‘technical’ and ‘political’ elements of the policy problem as expert advice is only needed to resolve technical concerns; political issues require political solutions. [ … ] Policy-makers must not misrepresent the expert advice they have received. In other words, policy-makers are free to reject the consensus view of experts but, if they do, citizens must know that this is what has happened.
58.Government witnesses acknowledged the separate imperatives of science and politics, and how these sometimes needed trade-offs. Jo Johnson told us:
We are given significant assistance by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser in understanding where the balance of scientific opinion lies on any question. Then it is up to us as Ministers in the Department to weigh up those important scientific interests against other factors that always come into play—deliverability and particular policy recommendations within fiscal constraints, affordability generally and how the public will react to decisions that might flow from the scientific evidence.
Sir Mark Walport had a similar perspective on where “science meets values”:
Policy makers have to look through three lenses. The first lens is, “What do I know about X or Y?”—the science evidence lens. The second lens is whether a policy is deliverable. [ … ] The third lens is the lens of values—political, personal and social values and the values of the electorate. Policy-making, ultimately, is an integral of all three of those things, and science is a more or less important part of it, depending on what it is. If it is whether you can fly an aeroplane through an ash cloud coming out of Eyjafjallajökull, the science is likely to trump the rest. When it comes to mitochondrial disease and possible preventive strategies for that, there is a classical area where science meets values.
He gave the further example of the regulatory control of khat, where the Home Secretary did not follow the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs that there were only minimal health implications, due to “other issues, such as the broader societal impacts [ … ] -an example of the broader lens of the policy-maker”.
59.When we asked Sir Mark if there might be an argument for having different kinds of consultations with experts in the field and with the public, for each of those policy-makers’ ‘lenses’, he replied “Yes, a horses-for-courses approach might be advisable.”
60.Science and politics (as well as finance and legal considerations) are at the heart of Government policy-making. When they do not fully align, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure trade-off decisions between what the science says, what is affordable and legal, and ultimately what the public will accept are transparent. The Government’s policy-making public consultation process often unhelpfully pitches science and those other factors together, so that a clear foundation of scientific understanding is not established without being co-opted—and misinterpreted—by the political debate. It is not unreasonable for the Government to weight scientific evidence to a lesser or greater extent, but where they do not follow the evidence directly, they must ensure that they do not dismiss or discredit legitimate scientific evidence.
61.We recommend the Science Minister and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should discuss with the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury as the sponsor of the policy evaluation ‘Green Book’, the scope for the consultation process to address the scientific issues separately from the political and other trade-off. This could, we believe, bring benefits for public engagement and reduce unnecessary disputes over the essential science. Such a separation in the consultation process could allow researchers, if they wished, to more readily confine their debate contributions to the science. If they also contributed to questions of policy implementation and the political trade-offs involved that would be more transparent.
62.In February 2016, the Cabinet Office announced its intention to introduce a new clause in such agreements from May 2016 that would prevent grants being used to “support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence [ … ] legislative or regulatory action”. The Science Media Centre thought that the anti-lobbying clause would have “sent negative messages to the scientific community about the Government’s commitment to openness”.
63.We wrote to the then Business Secretary in March 2016 to voice the concerns of the science and research community that the proposal could have had unintended effects and would “create a barrier to evidence-based policy-making.” In April 2016, the Government announced a “pause” to “give further consideration to the wording of the clause and its effect”. Jo Johnson told us in November 2016 that the academic community had raised concerns that the proposals would have limited their ability “to communicate effectively the findings of their research to Government”. In December 2016 new ‘standards’ to manage grants were announced in place of the proposed clause. Sir Mark Walport, the head of the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), told us in January 2017 that “both we and the Science Minister listened to the scientific community and fed the concerns through to the Cabinet Office; they were listened to and we got a good outcome”.
64.We welcome the Government’s decision not to proceed with its plans to introduce an ‘anti-lobbying’ clause in government grants and contracts. If implemented, it would have contradicted the thrust of the reforms of the REF research funding system which are aimed at giving greater weight to ‘public engagement’ (paragraph 49). It would have sent precisely the opposite message to the one needed—that there should be the widest and fullest possible science communication and engagement.
76 Sturges P., Allumn N., , Sage Publications (2004)
77 Brossard D., Shanahan J., , Sage publications, Vol. 28, Issue 1 (2006)
78 Sturges P., Allumn N., , ResearchGate
79 University of Oxford ()
81 The Guardian, (March 2015)
82 Wellcome Trust, , (4 April 2016)
83 Wellcome Trust, , (4 April 2016)
84 The Royal Society ()
85 Ipsos MORI for Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, (2014)
86 National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement have defined ‘public engagement’ () and sought to identify factors producing it ()
87 Research Councils UK ()
88 HM Treasury, (12 July 2004)
89 Council for Science and Technology, (March 2005)
90 An earlier House of Lords Science & Technology Committee report in 2000, Science and Society, had called for more meaningful engagement between scientists, policy makers and the public ()
91 Sciencewise - Expert Resource Centre,
92 Sciencewise - Expert Resource Centre,
94 Sciencewise - Expert Resource Centre,
95 Ricardo Energy & Environment ()
96 Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, (updated 8 May 2015)
97 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, , Fifth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 328
100 Science Media Centre ()
102 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Second Report, Session 2015–16, HC 469
103 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, (launched 5 April 2016)
104 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, First Report, Session 2015–16, HC 340; House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Eight Report, Session 2016–17, HC 671
105 National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, (21 may 2014)
106 Lord Nicholas Stern for Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, (July 2016)
107 Dr Simon Singh and Professor Richard Wiseman ()
108 As-SIST UK, Science in Public, Public Communication of Science and Technology ()
109 The Royal Society ()
110 Ipsos MORI for Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, (2014)
111 Cabinet Office, (14 January 2016)
112 Royal Academy of Engineering ()
115 Professor Robert Evans ()
116 Professor Robert Evans ()
121 Cabinet Office, (6 February 2016)
122 Science Media Centre ()
123 (15 March 2016)
124 Cabinet Office, (27 April 2016)
126 (10 May 2016)
127 Oral evidence taken on 25 January 2017, , Q68
24 March 2017